Coronavirus officially arrived in Iowa in mid-March, and within a week of this news breaking, everyone I know tried to fend it off with a healthy dose of Midwest heartiness.
“It’s like the flu. It’ll be fine,” I’ve heard coworkers, fellow yoga class attendees and friends say, despite heavily reported statistics to the contrary. (The World Health Organization has estimated the COVID-19 mortality rate between 3 and 4 percent, while the flu sits under 1 percent). “Whatever, if you’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it,” one friend said after they were shown the numbers. Another brave (if a little misguided) soul I know said, “I’d rather just get it and get it over with.”
It’s not surprising that Midwesterners are giving one collective shrug: Presenting a tough exterior is part of our culture. When a giant snowstorm hits, we tend to still go wherever we planned on going, because if it’s gonna snow, it’s gonna snow. When I side-eye potluck food left out for hours, my mom will, without fail, say, “Oh, it’s fine,” while piling another heaping portion on my plate. “Rub some dirt in it” is my husband’s favorite, only-half-joking thing to say when I get a cut.
In his hilarious 2006 book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson tells stories of growing up in Iowa in the 1950s during the Cold War, and how surprisingly little the adults in his life were bothered by the threat of being blown off the face of the earth.
“Danger was something that happened in far away places like Matsu and Quemoy and the Belgian Congo, places so distant that nobody was really quite sure where they were,” Bryson wrote. If they had Facebook then, Iowans might’ve been the ones sharing sayings like, “You know what cures radiation? Wine.”
Mona McCalley-Whitters, Ph.D., executive director of the Linn County Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, described Iowans’ stoic response to coronavirus as part defensive mechanism, part denial.
“We’re a sturdy stock, and we believe in an independent, proud lifestyle,” she said. “I think we’re going to see a growing sense of urgency as it reaches more places.”
McCalley-Whitters is particularly concerned about vulnerable populations, like the elderly and the homeless populations in the area, who, for one thing, might not have access to hand-washing stations.
She’s also worried about a secondary problem coronavirus might cause — social isolation for those advised to stay home. “Loneliness is not good for mental health. It will be important to check in and connect with your elderly family members,” she said.
Ripple effects like this, in addition to the immediate impacts on people’s health, make individuals brushing off the situation sound a little cold and callous. Dr. Alan Whitters, psychiatrist with Mercy Family Counseling in Cedar Rapids, said the problem isn’t that we’re an unfeeling people; it’s just hard for anyone to wrap their head around a threat they’ve never experienced.
“The lack of concrete information that people have makes them feel like other things in their life are more pressing,” he said. Plus, there are few first-hand experiences to compare it to. “No one alive experienced the 1918 Spanish flu.”
Whitters said it isn’t surprising that people are distancing themselves from the threat, even though (as of this writing) it’s reached three counties in Iowa. “People might think of it as a big city problem, or in any case, as a problem that will happen to someone else,” he said.
With estimates pouring in about the number of people who could eventually be infected, we’re likely going to need to let down our tough exteriors and admit that we aren’t entirely prepared. We may even need to admit that we’re a little bit scared.
“In spite of our sturdy stock, you or your neighbor will probably be impacted,” McCalley-Whitters said.
Jessica Carney writes about her family, life in Iowa and all the crazy jobs she’s had (like working backstage at concerts). She’s currently working on her first nonfiction book. You can find more at jessicacarneywriter.com. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 281.